Hari Venkatachalam is a master of public health candidate candidate at the University of South Florida and a Hindu activist focused on social justice, environmental change, and LGBT rights. Based in the Tampa, Florida, metropolitan area, Venkatachalam is a member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.
Although Hindus differ in their practices, beliefs, and philosophies, one statement I hear from Hindus across the world is: “Hinduism isn’t a religion; it is a way of life.” It is not just something that is believed, but something that is lived. It is an “anubhavam” my family said in Tamil, implying a deeply personal experience.
Within the vast collection of anubhavam, one of my earliest is watching my grandmother decorating the threshold of her white-washed rowhouse in the early hours of the morning with rice flour patterns called kolams. I would sit on the steps, my jetlagged brain reeling from the dark sky that hinted with shades of pink at the approaching dawn. Along the street, in the flickering lights escaping from front doors, I saw other thresholds being decorated with kolams. “To welcome Lakshmi into our homes,” my grandmother whispered, soft enough to not disturb the slumbering household, but loud enough to be heard over the cawing of birds and braying of calves awakening around the sleepy town of Tirupur.
I glanced suspiciously down the bumpy road at the dozens of households that must have been on the goddess Lakshmi’s “Stop-In” list. “She can’t stop at everyone’s home?” I asked. My grandmother lifted her sari and stepped gingerly to the side to avoid the ants that had already begun to crawl around her toes to carry away the rice flour grains. She gestured with her flour-dusted wrist. “Lakshmi comes with the jeevan, the life-force, or all these creatures.” An image of the goddess surrounded by a procession of creatures crystallized in my mind…a prototype of Disney’s Snow White. It was one of my first glimpses at Hinduism’s interdependent relationship with nature.
This childhood anubhavam has since been eclipsed by other sights, smells, and sounds. The sight of Ganesh Chathurthi murtis caked with toxic chemicals immersed into already poisoned rivers. The smells of noxious fumes released by factories that have the audacity to include the holy name of “Shree” in their company name. The sounds of scattered plastic bags and trash whirling in the wind in alleys next to sacred shrines.
It is true that Hinduism is an anubhavam. It is a faith composed of sacred actions, spiritual journeys, and personal investigation. That path, though, is supported by a harmonious relationship with nature. Without that relationship, our religion is incomplete and our prayers unfulfilled. If the rice flour my grandmother scattered had welcomed the goddess Lakshmi by quieting the hunger of the small insects and ants, then our environmentally detrimental actions, as a species, have resulted in a directly opposite effect on our planet and the divinity that underlies nature. Through our carbon emissions, and the resulting anthropogenic global warming, we have left our beloved planet, in the form of the goddess Bhumi, feverish, sickly, and broken.
The Earth Science Communications Team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has returned with their lab results and diagnosis: At 408 parts per million, CO2 levels in our atmosphere are the highest they have been in 650,000 years. At least 280 billion tons of ice were lost in Greenland and 119 billion tons were lost in Antarctica per year over the past 23 years. Global temperatures are 1.8 degrees F higher than they were in 1880. Fever, indeed, for Bhumi-Mata. Anthropogenic global warming is fueled by pollution, heavy carbon emissions, and a disregard for nature.
The call for Hindus to experience faith through combating global warming may be one that arose in the mid-twentieth century, but it is an echo of the duties of our faith that have been passed down over millennia. It is in the revered trees we circumambulate (pradakshinam), in the sacred rivers in which we bathe (snaanam), and in the very air we breathe (pranaayam).
It is a way of life.
The time has come for us to combat global warming with the same sense of dharma that led Arjuna to the battlefield, with the same moral responsibility that led Lord Rama to the woods, and with the same conviction that convinced Lord Shiva to consume poison to save the world.
We must support clean and renewable energy initiatives. We must lower the carbon impact of both individuals and industries. We must advocate for the poor who will be disproportionately affected by global warming and ensure they remain safe from rising ocean levels and heat waves. We are Hindus, and in the face of global warming, this is our way of life.